February 28, 2009
Comedy troupe the Lonely Island (Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone) make their LP debut with Incredibad, a frequently hilarious collection of 19 tracks, several of which originally debuted on Saturday Night Live as digital shorts. (The CD version of the album comes packaged with a DVD featuring eight videos, two for songs not included on the CD, “Just 2 Guys” and “Bing Bong Brothers.” You can otherwise see the videos on their site and pick up a digital booklet if you buy the MP3 album.) What makes Incredibad especially worthwhile is that many of the songs, most of which are pitch-perfect send-ups of rap, hip-hop and dance music, are so catchy they bear repeat listens. The guest list is also totally impressive: E-40, T-Pain, Julian Casablancas, Norah Jones, Natalie Portman and Chris Parnell. There’s a dud or two, and at least one song worked better with its visuals (“Space Olympics”), but in general, this is one great comedy album. It’s profane, it’s profoundly silly, it’s absurd, and it’s quite possibly the album of the summer, several months early. Standout cuts: “Santana DVX,” “Jizz In My Pants,” “I’m On A Boat” and “Like A Boss.”
February 26, 2009
Singer/songwriter Andy Cabic’s band Vetiver makes the kind of sudden leap forward that Okkervil River made with their dual release, The Stage Names and The Stand Ins: From the opening notes of the gorgeous opener, “Rolling Sea,” to the moody closer, “To The Forest Edge,” their fourth album Tight Knit is so focused, assured and just plain inspired that it has the makings of a future classic. The ten songs are a seamless mix of folk, country, psychedelic rock, blues with a bit of soul thrown in, with echoes of Bob Dylan, the Band, the Grateful Dead and contemporaries Son Volt and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, among other influences. Though easygoing folk rock takes up most of the album, there are a couple of nicely timed rock numbers, “Everyday” and “More Of This,” and one slow burning blues funk influenced number, “Another Reason To Go,” to change things up a bit. An early highlight of 2009, Tight Knit is a career best for Vetiver, and it’s definitely recommended listening. Standout cuts: “Rolling Sea,” “Everyday,” “More Of This” and “Strictly Rule.”
February 26, 2009
Upon listening to On The Ground, the new album from Peasant (Damien DeRose), comparisons can be made to artists like Neil Young, Elliott Smith, the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, which are apt, but still fall a bit short of properly conveying what the 13 tracks contained here really sound like. There’s a lot of folk rock, to be sure, with influences from both the 60’s American folk scene and the English folk scene of the 70’s. Peasant proceeds to layer some strings on top of that, along with some Americana and a bit of an early 70’s pop feel as well. Many of the tracks are relaxed, easy going affairs, but On The Ground nevertheless keeps the pace fast, as Peasant’s songs are often compact pieces, many of them two to three minutes tops. It must be difficult to stand out in a folk rock scene that’s becoming increasingly crowded, but Peasant manages it with a knack for a catchy melody, a soothing vocal style and lyrics that are simple, direct and unpretentious. On The Ground is very much recommended, especially for folk and folk rock fans. Standout cuts: “We’re Good,” “Raise Today,” “Exposure” and “Birds.”
February 25, 2009
Mr. Lucky, the first album of new material in seven years from Stockton, California born singer/songwriter Chris Isaak, reflects his status, twenty-four years after his debut, Silvertone (also the name of his band), as a most savvy entertainer, one who knows what his own strengths are and who knows what his longtime fans want from him. Isaak has never strayed very far from the music that made him famous, a combination of moody, often grimly drawn ballads and high energy rock with roots in rockabilly and surf music, all firmly entrenched in the 50’s and 60’s and delivered with a cool confidence. If there’s a major difference between Isaak then and Isaak now, it’s that his music doesn’t have that sort of spooky, eerie, slightly decadent quality that made it perfect for soundtracks of David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick movies, and honestly, I rather miss that. That said, Mr. Lucky is an enjoyable, highly ingratiating album, with some choice cuts amid a notably high gloss production. Isaak and his band sound as masterful as ever, and a couple of duets, with Trisha Yearwood and Michelle Branch, respectively, are thrown in for good measure. Despite the omnipresent heartbreak and world weariness built into Isaak’s music, this is a pretty fun record, a welcome return that gets more welcome the more (and more closely) one listens to it. Standout cuts: “Cheater’s Town,” “We Let Her Down,” “Mr. Lonely Man” and “Big Wide Wonderful World.”
February 23, 2009
David Cloyd’s Unhand Me, You Fiend! is the New York City based singer/songwriter’s utterly impressive debut, featuring nine originals and a Radiohead cover, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi.” It’s a pretty potent mixture of pop and rock, finely crafted and intelligently made. (Listeners may find out how exactly it was made on the entertaining and informative commentary track that appears at the end of the album, featuring Cloyd and producer Blake Morgan.) The often densely layered music has echoes of the Beatles, Matthew Sweet and Elliott Smith, and stylistically sits comfortably among the work of contemporaries like Rufus Wainwright, Duncan Sheik and Kevin Tihista’s Red Terror. All those comparisons aside, if there’s a familiarity to Cloyd’s music, it’s the strange way good music, even music new to your ears, already seems familiar. Unhand Me, My Fiend! has a hard edged beauty that makes it one of the first great discoveries of 2009. Standout cuts: “Never Run,” “Come Out Wherever You Are,” “We’re Coming For You Anyway” and “The First Sign.”
February 20, 2009
So it’s the weekend of the Oscars, and for some strange reason you’re not totally pumped to see Fired Up! or Madea Goes To Jail, the only two new wide releases opening on Friday. Allow me then to make a case for The International, a top notch, sometimes astoundingly shot thriller from Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer, starring a particularly intense Clive Owen as a globetrotting Interpol agent battling a murderous multinational bank. It’s pretty plain from the start that The International‘s cinematic forebears are 70’s thrillers like The Parallax View or Three Days Of The Condor, and while it eschews slower 70’s pacing, it also dispenses with the furious edits that render the action in other contemporary films annoying to watch and frequently incomprehensible. Instead, Tykwer emphasizes the spatial relationships of his characters onscreen, making clear their goals and obstacles, which in turns ratchets up the tension and intensity of the action. Nowhere is this more effective than a scene where Owens finds himself trapped by gunmen on a ramp. The ensuing melee is simply one of the most brilliantly staged and flat out exciting shootouts I’ve seen in movies, and for action fans, this scene alone is worth sitting through, especially on a big screen. The International isn’t without its flaws, as it loses some momentum towards the third act. It also essentially wastes Naomi Watts in a role that’s alternately underwritten or flat out badly written: She’s required by the script to deliver some of the film’s most cringeworthy dialogue. Tykwer keeps things going fast enough that most viewers I think will find it easy to overlook these things. The overarching conspiracy elements of the plot some viewers may find hard to swallow, but I felt the final scenes of the movie made it clear that what The International was chiefly about the collision of essentially amoral forces with forces equipped with their own variable notions of moral behavior. Can we expect justice to come out of such a collision or simply more upheaval and chaos? To its credit, The International doesn’t do the thinking for its viewers, instead ending on a refreshingly adult note. The International has its flaws, but in general, it’s a pretty solid thriller, and definitely recommended. And damn, that shootout!
MONKEY RATING: TWO EVIL BANKING MONKEYS
(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)
February 19, 2009
Austin based singer/songwriter Ben Kweller, mostly known for his power pop records, ventures into country with Changing Horses. The country he has in mind to pay tribute to is country from the 40’s through the 60’s primarily, and the first two songs, “Gypsy Rose” and “Old Hat,” are spot on, both excellent mixes of his pop sensibility with credible country arrangements (acoustic guitars, plentiful steel guitar work, some strings, among other touches). The rest of the album has its highs and lows, the latter beginning with the third track, “Fight,” but most of it gets by owing to charm and the sheer earnestness of the whole enterprise. It’s maybe not Kweller’s best work, but it’s an interesting change of pace that yields some good tunes. Standout cuts: “Gypsy Rose,” “Old Hat,” “The Ballad Of Wendy Baker” and “Sawdust Man.”
February 19, 2009
When I first heard M. Ward’s take on blues and folk music at the beginning of the decade, I was struck by its often otherworldly quality, music that one might’ve been pulled down during a séance. It was haunting, lyrical and a bit eerie at times. Eight years later, Ward’s music still has those qualities from time to time, though he’s mostly left any lo-fi feel it once had behind him awhile back, which isn’t a bad thing. It is worth remarking on, however, as Hold Time is his most elaborately produced album yet, with copious strings and some synths layered over the usual electric and acoustic guitars. The title track even pushes the latter two into the background, to nice effect. The tone is generally pretty weighty, with a number of the tracks directly addressing spiritual and existential issues, i.e. “Fisher Of Men” and “Epistemology.” There are some fun tracks, too, notably “Never Had Nobody Like You” with its glam rock beat, and a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On,” both tracks duets with She & Him collaborator Zooey Deschanel. And then there’s the insanely catchy “To Save Me,” done with Jason Lyle. (The fourth duet is the less successful cover of “Oh Lonesome Me” with Lucinda Williams.) All in all, this is a pretty solid release for Ward, both a reiteration of past musical themes and a progression forward, which I imagine longtime fans will have no problem embracing. Standout cuts: “Never Had Nobody Like You,” “Hold Time,” “To Save Me” and “Stars Of Leo.”
February 18, 2009
Los Angeles based singer/songwriter Eleni Mandell set out to make her seventh album in ten years, Artificial Fire, with a specific goal in mind: “I want people to hear this record and have fun, more of a good time.” Not that her previous albums haven’t been fun, albums that musically have ranged from moody, film noir-ish rock and jazzy pop to forays into sultry torch songs and country music. The unpretentious eclecticism that has characterized her previous work is fully intact, however, and elements of all those aforementioned styles find their way into the fifteen Mandell original songs included here. The rockers she’s written for Artificial Fire have a punk and New Wave edge to them, not unlike Blondie or the Pretenders, and are strategically sprinkled throughout the record, essentially adding some extra punch to the beginning, middle and end. Mandell hasn’t really rocked out like this in some time, so those tracks are especially welcome. She’s backed on this album by an ace band that includes Ryan Feves (bass), Kevin Fitzgerald (drums) and Jeremy Drake (electric guitar), whose musicianship insures this is a consistently entertaining and sometimes surprising record to listen to from start to finish. Artificial Fire is a lot of sophisticated, playful fun, and if you don’t know Mandell’s work yet (and you really should, as she’s one of the American music scene’s greatest contemporary talents), this is a pretty good place to start getting acquainted. Standout cuts: “Artificial Fire,” “It Wasn’t The Time (It Was The Color),” “Bigger Burn” and “Cracked.”
February 13, 2009
First of all, in the interest of full disclosure, let me just say that I’m not one of those horror fans who consider the original Friday the 13th (1980) to be in any way a classic. It was an okay ripoff of the original Halloween (1978), albeit with a very memorable ending, itself cribbed from Carrie, but still scary as hell. The second film introduced Jason, serial killer extraordinaire who eventually acquired a hockey mask as the franchise dragged on and who preyed on mostly teenagers and young adults indulging in sex and/or drugs, or even just thinking about it. Like so many horror icons before him, Jason Voorhees eventually ended up in space and stayed there, the franchise finally dying off after twenty-one (!) years. Enter producer Michael Bay and director Marcus Nispel, who made the financially successful and artistically awful remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and who sought to work their dubious magic on Friday the 13th. Whereas the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was legitimately a work of art, the original Friday the 13th wasn’t anywhere near that, and I figured they couldn’t do worse. And they haven’t, really. In fact, they’ve produced a remake that’s better in almost all respects than the original film. (Make that the first three films, since this new film is essentially a reworking of the first three Friday the 13th films.) That said, it’s still no Halloween (the John Carpenter version, not the Rob Zombie one), but it’s a knowing, unapologetic exploitation film, with copious amounts of violence and plenty of gratuitous nudity. It’s not without problems of its own, some of which I’ll essay below, but for the most part, it’s exciting and scary and mostly a lot of fun. If only the whole movie were like its pre-title prologue, which, in a course of maybe fifteen minutes, recaps the original, sets up this remake, and then jumps from 1980 to the present day, where a group of young adults seeking a hidden marijuana field instead encounter Jason. It’s one of the most brutally efficient openers to a modern horror film I’ve seen. Had the rest of the movie been like that, it might’ve been some kind of a minor horror classic. Alas, the rest of the movie settles into your standard stalk and kill.
So here are my issues with the movie:
1. The underground lair: This is fast becoming the hoariest cliche in modern horror. It would be one thing if the antagonist lived in some ratty cave, but no, they have to be cavernous dwellings, fully furnished and wired for electricity. Where do their electric bills go? Does Jason get on the phone every now and then and argue about the charges?
2. Master archer/gymnastic Jason. Gone is the slow moving Jason of old. The new Jason can run, leap up on buildings in a single bound (I’m not exaggerating) and can use a bow and arrow and throw an axe like nobody’s business. I’m guessing he got in shape refinishing his underground lair.
3. Minorities as comic relief: The two non-white characters in Friday the 13th are likable enough, but it becomes painfully clear their only function is provide comic relief. It doesn’t even make sense why they’re friends with the people they’re with. Women don’t fare much better, as, with the exception of two characters, they’re in the movie to get naked or get killed. Then again, I guess that goes for most of the male characters, too. Maybe the real issue is lazy scriptwriting, but it still bugged me.
4. Jason, pot farmer. The pot angle in this movie is never really properly explained. However, if that pot field is Jason’s, then it would explain how Jason is paying his electric bills and how he funded the renovation of his underground lair. And it’s clear he’s not getting high on his own supply, which makes him a good businessman, if nothing else.
5. The ending. Enough said.
The audience at the midnight showing I saw Friday the 13th with seemed to overlook most of these flaws. For the most part, I did, too. My expectations were admittedly low, but this is one horror remake that works, which doesn’t make it a great movie by any means, but it does make it a pretty good time for horror fans. If you’re not a horror fan, you could probably skip this movie and still lead a pretty normal life. You’ll also want to add a monkey to the rating below.
MONKEY RATING: TWO HOCKEY MASKED MONKEYS
(For a brief explanation of the Monkey Review rating system, click here.)